Quick Reviews: Pashmina

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The Space Between Us

Paradoxes and contradictions are a part and parcel of this ever-on-the-move,pseudo-dreamlike city called Bombay rechristened to Mumbai. And one of the large and growing paradoxes of the city is the way in which the woman of the middle class comes into close contact with the woman of the low class vis-a-vis the great necessity of the elite/middle class called the servant. This necessity though great is hardly ever really talked about except in slandering the people who fulfil that necessity or when they put forward their demands regularly which are dismissed on an equally regular basis.

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar explores this very paradox which is ubiquitous but never acknowledged. Quite a paradox within a paradox, eh? So what exactly is this paradox? To state it clearly, the rising middle class or those well established ones always hire a maid/servant (full time or part-time) to do the many chores while they are busy hurrying to offices or catching up on other important tasks like catching up on the latest conniving traps of the new saas (mother-in-law) on the block or going golfing/kitty parties and other some such silly stuff. So while the middle class will never otherwise really come in contact with the low class thanks to the rise of gated communities which makes sure that the ugly side of any place let alone a city is never revealed and is conveniently obliterated in the mind, they come in contact with them through the maids who become (usually of the women thanks to the never changing stereotypes of the roles of men and women!) great companions and friends sharing their lives and worlds which in any other situation would be unthinkable.

The novel elaborates quite evocatively on such a scenario with a touching prologue that captures so vividly the mental state of any city dweller at some point or the other: the need to just run away from all your problems, hoping that the city disappears and while you sit at the sea, hoping it will wash away your sorrows/frustrations etc. The story charts out the individual lives of two women who are world apart: Sera, a rich Parsi women who has had her own share of unhappiness in her married life and Bhima, the maid who works in her house and whose world is falling apart constantly even as she perpetually struggles hard to keep it all together. The story opens with Bhima’s granddaughter, Maya, getting pregnant- from a man whose identity is revealed at the end-which again though temporarily shatters Bhima’s world and all her hopes for Maya and her education which she thought of as her ticket out of the vicious hell of being a maid. Sera and Bhima share a fragile, precarious camaraderie which cuts across class and the usual stereotypes about how a relationship should be between a master and servant. Both have been there for each other in times of need-Bhima when Sera had to heal from her husband’s abuses and Sera when Bhima needed her while her husband was in hospital and other cases. Though they share a a good womanly friendship which is also seen in Sera’s daughter-Dinaz’s fondness for Bhima, the relationship is fraught with the several hesitations and doubts and stereotypes too.

The story weaves its way through Maya’s pregnancy while constantly going into flashbacks into Sera’s and Bhima’s life which work as good reminisces and a way to show how their lives merged and then into the present which stands like it always does with a lot of uncertainty while also being happy in its own small ways and then into the end which reveals the father quite un-dramatically like one of those mundane things you suddenly become aware of like how to chip vegetables or what exactly does a Bachelor’s degree mean or some such dross things that makes up what is called life. And then comes…oh wait…u need to find this on your own so go read it..

It is definitely worth a read as it is a poignant story because of its subject and the jarring clash of two worlds which brings fore jarringly the worlds we conveniently ignore-the struggles Bhima goes through just about everyday for basic necessities is something that would make us the people sitting cushioned in their AC rooms faint. The novel can be bogged down with over use of metaphors and similes but on the whole it is quite an engaging read.

The title, The Space Between Us, is quite appropriate as it questions the space that divide across class, shows how it can be reconciled or perhaps not. It challenges, questions, experiments with it, putting more questions forward but never answering any of them. That is for us to do.

Romping through chawls

Today, Mumbai is obsessed with skyscrapers. The illusion among officials running the city is that high rises (that like its name also have high prices) with kitschy colours or made of crystal clear glass will help the city achieve that elusive status of ‘world class.’ No matter that half the population still lives without access to basic amenities like clean drinking water, proper toilets etc; as long as the city has the veneer of being world class, the have nots be damned. Redevelopment is the norm nowadays and a redevelopment of Dharavi is also on the cards; now whether this move is truly to uplift the people and give them better homes or just a ruse to make available vast tracts of land for greedy land developers is for the experts to decide. What is being missed out in this race for constructing tall buildings in the hope of emulating the Western ‘world class’ cities (remember the program of transforming Mumbai into Shanghai?), is that Mumbai is also home to numerous clusters of chawls, bungalows, smaller buildings, heritage areas that are being slowly effaced from the face of the city.

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, when the fad of high rises was still a distant dream, it was the chawls that dominated the topography of the city with just a few multi storeys towering over them. Kiran Nagarkar’s novel,’Ravan and Eddie‘ capture that time of Bombay by chronicling the story of the two boys of the title who grow up in the Central Works Department (CWD) chawls in Byculla. Set in the 1950s, the novel is a tongue-in-cheek tale that traces the two boys’ growth as they try and overcome the hurdles of living in the chawls and their own set of familial troubles.

The No.17 CWD chawl in which the two boys reside are themselves neatly divided on the basis of religion: on one floor live the Hindus and the other the Roman Catholics. The novel starts with the dramatic birth of Eddie Coutinho with his mother, Violet, in the ambulance just minutes after she lost her husband, Victor, whose only claim to fame in the novel was being infatuated by Parvatibai, Ravan’s mother and dying while trying to save him. Thus Eddie is born fatherless but with Father Agnelo by his side at the time of his birth. The novel then meanders its way snidely and gradually as both the boys grow up hating each other;one accusing the other of killing his father, the other believing in the truth of the accusation and finally convincing himself to be a killer. From Eddie’s dabbling in Hinduism, to Ravan’s tiffs with her mother, from Eddie selling black tickets of ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ to Ravan receiving letters requesting him to kill some irascible person in their lives, from the unending work of Parvatibai to Violet’s mum acting matchmaker for her, from Father Agnelo’s constant reprimands to Eddie to Ravan’s dad, Shankar’s unemployment, from the saga of the nine Sarang girls to the saga of Ravan’s mysterious lecherous aunt, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is a hilarious, bawdy post-colonial novel that will transport the reader to the very corridors of the chawls that have been so vividly recreated in the story

As much as, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is about the two boys, it is also about the life in the chawls and moreover, a subtle critique of the condition of independent India’s urban areas. The numerous digressions that interrupt the imaginative narrative are telling comments on the tough life of the people there. Kiran Nagarkar captures both the joviality of their lives along with their hardships with the digressions such as, ‘The Great Water Wars’ and ‘A Harangue on Poverty’ breaking the illusion of a problem free, happy, independent India. There are several other digressions that talk about other quintessential aspects of Indian life and don’t necessarily try and burst the safe bubble of independent India. What they have in common is a sarcastic and snarky tone that succeeds in making a point.

The overall tone of the entire novel is cheeky and sarcastic. Nagarkar’s writing is concise, to the point and doesn’t wander away unnecessarily. Like the hustle and bustle of the city and its chawls, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is also a bustle of incidents that are crammed into 330 odd pages that leave you in a huff and puff as you try and take in all the delights, adventures and troubles of the variety of people populating the story.

Go grab a copy and immerse yourself in a world where high rises just don’t exist and where chawls were not an eyesore but a living, breathing microcosm of the city.

The Games People Play

Mumbai-a city you can have a love-hate relationship with, a city in which people think dreams are built (do they ever think that they are shattered there too?), a city fast moving, on the go, a whirling vortex that will push you into anonymity at times. Yet still we all live, die, dream and enjoy and curse in this bunch of islands reclaimed together to assume the shape of a city. ‘Sacred Games‘ by Vikram Chandra  is wholly enmeshed with this whirling vortex of a city whose one claim to fame is being the commercial capital of India. The story focuses on Sartaj Singh, a lone Sikh inspector in Mumbai police and in his forties, who gets an anonymous tip off on Ganesh Gaitonde, a dreaded Hindu don of Mumbai who any respectful inspector would kill to catch and get a promotion. Similarly Singh sees a window of opportunity in this tip off and soon gets to Gaitonde’s shelter from where he chats with Singh through the intercom telling him a winded tale of the start of his criminal life. Sartaj is unable to convince him to surrender and so eventually bulldozes the place and much to his chagrin finds Gaitonde and an unknown women dead already. Thereafter, the book weaves its way in a parallel of Sartaj’s investigation into Gaitonde (after Gaitonde’s death, the Indian intelligence comes to investigate this mysterious presence of the gangster in Mumbai and how he might have posed a threat to national security. Sartaj is recruited to help in the investigation) and Gaitonde’s narration of his life to Sartaj. The latter is rather eerie as it feels like the dead is speaking directly to Sartaj. Within these parallel stories lie countless number of subplots-Katekar’s (Sartaj’s partner) life and death, Katekar’s wife and his two sons, Sartaj’s other numerous investigations such as the case of blackmailing of Kamala Pandey, Sartaj’s mother’s ponderous moods, the Partition and how it affected Sartaj’s mother’s family, Senior inspector-Parulkar’s tactics to stay on the job, Jojo’s dreams of becoming an actress and several more. There are chapters in the novel called insets which can become novellas and short stories in themselves. These insets are related most often to the subplots like Sartaj’s mother’s sister, Navneet, being lost in Partition. Gaitonde’s life story reveals the grim underbelly of Mumbai’s mafia and how much of the city functions only because of them and the fighting between Gaitonde’s Hindu gangster company with the Muslim Suleiman Isa’s company seems faintly reminiscent of real life fighting between Dawood Ibrahim and Arun Gawli in Mumbai. Vikram Chandra has himself said that he did meet up real life ‘bhais’ in Mumbai and perhaps a lot of it is inspired by real life itself. We can only speculate and guess. What we can be sure of is that from this epic novel you can definitely get a lot of excitement and entertainment and thoughts to ponder over.

Sacred Games‘ is a massive book-900 pages long-quite daunting to look at and even more difficult to hold for long and if you are one of those who bought a hardback copy (like me) my utmost sympathies. But the size shouldn’t mislead you. The book is very engaging, eloquent and epic in every sense. It is difficult to categorize this novel-it is a mesh of a Bollywood film (and can be adapted into one as well given Bollywood’s penchant for action), thriller, detective novel, city novel etc. Pinpointing to one exact genre is next to impossible because of the sprawling nature of the book’s story which covers such a wide range of subjects and is written in multifarious styles that could be from any genre. ‘Sacred Games‘ is a wholly Indian book, a completely Bombay/Mumbai book reflecting Indian moods, issues, problems, daily existence, language. There is a generous sprinkling of Hindi terms, Bombay Hindi, Hinglish and Marathi too which could be hard for a foreigner or even an Indian unfamiliar with the special mix of Bombay languages to understand. On the author’s website, you can find a glossary for the novel which may or may not be useful. Click here to get it.   A little background knowledge about the 80s’ and the 90s’ scenario in India would also help in better understanding as Chandra routinely refers to actual events though he never names them explicitly such as the Partition, the Indo-China war of the 60s’, the Bombay riots of 1993 etc. The book is definitely for a true Mumbai inhabitant, one who will immediately recognize these events, feel a connection with the persistent smoke, traffic, noise and the islands of peace of the city, one who will know about the criminal underbelly of the glitzy city.

The detailing of ‘Sacred Games‘ is splendid. Chandra has done a fabulous job to string together vastly different lives/characters and put them together in the story thus creating a rich, multifaceted tapestry of Mumbai and its many quirks. Sartaj Singh is one of his best creations. He gives the inspector a humane personality which most mainstream portrayals of policemen lack. They tend to demonize them and constantly depict them as cruel,lecherous and sadistic in their behavior (which may be true of some but generalisation is always a dangerous thing to do). Gaitonde is suffused with a very Godfatheresque aura having the same paternalistic outlook towards his people and business as Don Corleone did.

The plot, the writing, the variety are all very fine and good but what eludes the book is any challenges on the author’s part. Vikram Chandra simply spins a yarn and puts it down in a 900 page book which is thrilling nonetheless but there is none of Chandra’s own opinions reflecting through in the novel. ‘Sacred Games‘ is too realist, doesn’t challenge anything. It only states that yes-the city is and will always be ruled by mafia-police-ministers nexus, women will forever be seen as sex objects, Bollywood will always be a dreamland etc. Catherine Belsey, a famous British Marxist feminist critic once asserted that realism only legitimised the actual society and their authors never challenged the several practices of the society: they only depicted it as it was. This is true of ‘Sacred Games‘ as well and the most damning of the ‘realist’ depictions are the inferior status of women in Indian society. The novel is very male centric and women are either only whores or depicted as dispensable dependable objects. There is a tacit subtext of the novel that women only exist to please men’s needs, to do their duty (Sartaj’s mother’s assertion that it is her right to feel happy in being alone after her husband’s death because she has done her duty is rather badly misogynistic. It implies that happiness only comes for women after they have been dutiful all their lives) for society i.e. to get married and procreate and take dowry with them. There are hardly any major, strong women characters barring Anjali Mathur, Mary and Jojo Mascarenhas and Iffat Bibi. This stereotyping fails to do anything except assert the ‘real’ world and does not challenge it. Moreover, there is a sense that Chandra seems biased against the Muslim community. It is a delicate thing to write about Muslim-Hindu mafia or the Partition but it shouldn’t have to hold fingers against a particular religious group. Manto wrote on the most sensitive topics around the Partition but he showed the inhumanity of it all rather than blaming either Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus.

Taken together, ‘Sacred Games‘ can be quite a task to read, but take the book one chapter at a time then there won’t be any problems in finishing this epic novel at all.

Pardesi: The Namesake and Leaving India

Despite the US and UK tightening their grip on immigration, the ‘foreign’ dream will perhaps never go out of fashion for the Indians. Immigration-whether forced or voluntary- explains the history of the Indian diaspora to a large extent. There is a reason embedded in history which explains why Indians are found in such a large number in South Africa or Fiji, where there has often been a lot of violence between the native Fijians and the Indians, and other places.

Literature, whether Indian or otherwise, has brilliantly captured (as it always does) the emotional, nostalgic and human elements involved in the process of immigration that goes beyond the numbers and figures that ministries and studies on this subject routinely throw at us.

Let’s take a quick look at two Indian authored books which provide varying perspectives about the idea of immigration and its implication on the people who embark on that journey:

1)  Title: Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages To Five Continents

Author: Minal Hajratwala

Thoughts: Though it a non-fiction book which chronicles precisely what the title says, Hajratwala has wonderfully spun this tale of her own family’s (both maternal and paternal) forays into the different countries such that the book appears like history book narrating not the stories of great kings and queens, but rather a fateful story of an ordinary Indian family whose destinies were shaped by forces beyond them (such as the emergence of the indentured labour system, the failing art and crafts market in British India, etc). Let not the ‘non-fiction’ tag deter you from immersing yourself into this mesmerizing story because it is skillfully written with a charm and passion that is hard to find in other non fiction books as they tend to be drab and factual. Along the way, you might learn just a little something about the Indian history such as the connections Gandhiji had with South Africa(apart from the fact that he was thrown out of the train) and some such other tidbits which never make into our history textbooks. Minal Hajratwala traces her family history by juxtaposing facts with anecdotes and the former always explain the reasons for her family’s movements and successes across the globe.This helps a lot in understanding as to why Indians in general and her family members in particular migrated when they did.

Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages To Five Continents‘ is truly an engrossing read that will take you on an enchanting journey across half the world while still keeping you grounded in your Indian roots.

2)   Title: The Namesake

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Thoughts: Jhumpa Lahiri hardly ever gets the fanfare she deserves. Actually, most deserving Indian authors are often lost behind the haze of cliched bestsellers. While we can argue this for an eternity, one thing is clear: that her second book, ‘The Namesake‘ is beauty personified. It is centered around the Gangulis, a Bengali family who move to the US for greener pastures. Ashoke Ganguli, the breadwinner, a student and later a professor and Ashima,(a very apt name for an immigrant as it means one without borders) his wife, have their first son whom they curiously name Gogol, after the not so famous celebrated Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, which thus further adds to the child’s identity issues: he is caught between his Indian and American identities but his name reflect none of these two as it is of Russian origin. The story gradually progresses with Gogol’s growing up, dealing with identity issues and how his family members, particularly Ashima, deal with being away from home with hardly any relatives surrounding them. The story illuminates the life of the Gangulis as they make their way in an unknown country and gradually come to accept and even love.

The Namesake‘ is a poignant story that tackles issues of homelessness, assimilation, cultural and emotional identities, forging one’s own unique identity in a unique culture, displacement, diaspora, cultural and ideological conflicts, adjustments, generation gaps etc. But Jhumpa Lahiri explores all this with a quite emotional power that will hit you sensitively. There is a delicacy in her writing style that asserts the fragility of human relationships, asserts that they are precarious and can shatter anytime.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is a collection of short stories that also deals with similar issues in the same characteristic style which is sensitive and beautiful. Click here to check out my review for this book.

Do you know of any more books that deal with this issue of immigration? Please feel free to share in the comments below!

‘Leuk(derma)’ing Bad

Step into the world of leukoderma and understand it complexity, problem and the various Indian superstitions revolving around it. Before you groan and go away, let me tell you that this isn’t a book a la ‘Emperor Of Maladies'(though I am told it is a fascinating book) but rather a fictional story of the struggles that a woman suffering leukoderma faces. ‘Mahashweta‘ by Sudha Murthy, from the synopsis at the back and the glittering praise from well established newspapers, promises to be a unique read that delves into the suffering of a disease that afflicts many but doesn’t find its way in the stories. Unfortunately, the novel fails to live up to those promises for which there are many reasons to which we will get back to later on.

Mahashweta‘ is aptly dedicated to women suffering from leukoderma and urges them to fight and not be oppressed by their disease. The story begins on a congratulatory note with the birth of a girl child which is a means to establish the single status of Dr. Anand-the successful, handsome and rich doctor- who helped give birth to the baby girl. Later while at his work, Anand is coaxed into buying a Rs. 1000 ticker for a play he has no idea about by the ‘incomparable’ Anupama. The play is a love story between Mahashweta and Pundalik and is part of the book ‘Kadambari’ written by Bhana Bhatta. Anupama plays the heroine and as expected Dr. Anand is mesmerized by her beauty and acting skills. After a few irrelevant incidents, they both get married(how predictable!) despite the difference in their economic status. It is only after marriage that Anupama develops a white patch and it begins to spread despite her clandestine treatment. When  her mother-in-law realises this, all hell breaks loose. She accuses Anupama of having tricked her son into marrying him and begins to consider her inauspicious because of leukoderma. She eventually returns to her father’s house, disgraced. Her evil stepmother’s taunts and ill treatment just worsens the situation. To top it all, Dr. Anand- being a doctor at least should know that leukoderma is nothing but a disease and not something that turns a person inauspicious-also does not support Anupama and abandons her when she needed him the most. Anupama, however, does not let the circumstances get the better of her. She bravely decides to go to Mumbai, away from her callous family and in-laws, to eke out a living and carve a place of her own free from any pain, stigma and stereotypes. She is quite successful is achieving her dreams and standing proudly on her own two feet.

Mahashweta‘ is a conventional story of the suffering bravely overcoming their difficult trials and tribulations. The only redeeming aspect of the story comes at the end when Anupama decides to remain her own master and be economically independent rather than being bound by someone else’s rules and regulations. Other than this, the novel as a whole is marred by a fragmented narrative, dollops of stereotypes, amateurish writing, no smooth narration and a very soap operatic treatment of the entire story. In fact, I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that ‘Mahashweta‘ is a soap opera in prose style as it has all the prerequisites of one-the constant preoccupation with marriage, the evil mother-in-law and sister-in-law twist, the evil stepmother convention, the too good to be true daughter-in-law who suffers silently, the narrow minded and religious focus of the story at time and the list is endless.

While Sudha Murthy does take up a relatively lesser known disease to tell her story, she does not break any new ground on it as the entire novel is steeped in too many stereotypes particularly about girls and marriage. For eg, on the first page itself, the nurse who assisted in the birth of the girl ponders over how the female child is stronger at birth than the male but later on becomes the one who suffers. The nurse attributes this as being ‘a fact of life’ which is not really true because being feminine or masculine is not a fact of life but rather a cultural construct. The system of patriarchy conditions women to expect suffering in their life. Anything that is exploited or oppressed is associated with the female sex. For eg. it is ‘mother’ earth and never ‘father’ earth. The novel is replete with such redundant stereotypes. Murthy may have wished to challenge them but she does not do a good job as she merely states them with no attempts at challenging them much like any commonplace Indian soap opera.

Moreover,her writing does not have the emotional depth that is perhaps required in such a sensitive story. Most of her attempts at philosophy(through Anupama) are also blunt and shallow.

Although, ‘Mahashweta‘ educates the reader about leukoderma and the debilitating superstitions that even ‘educated’ Indians follow, the novel becomes a drag to read. It reveals the hypocrisy of the Indian society in their attitudes to leukoderma but does not do so in a profound, erudite and  personal manner.

Final Verdict: It is best to skip ‘Mahashweta‘ altogether. If you really want to know more about leukoderma, then contact you nearest dermatologist. Or if you don’t have the time, then just click here to know more!

Love Across The Salt Desert

Wistful, melancholic, historical and isolated stories that cherish hope at times or relinquish  it completely is what characterizes the 20 selected short stories of Keki Daruwalla’s magnificent new book titled, ‘Love Across The Salt Desert.’ These 20 short stories have no thematic similarities as they portray a wide range of characters and surroundings from a disconcerted British officer during Quit India movement to the religious, intellectual and insightful Parsee father, from a sensationalist journalist to a deceitful doctor, from a loving granddaughter to a jilted yet content wife etc and from Rann of Kutch to the lofty, ethereal mountains of Niti valley, from the cultured pre-independence to the sleepy Gorakhpur, from the ancient India of Porous to the ancient Aegean regions etc.

Yet despite this disparity, each story has a perfect Aristotelian beginning, middle and end. Each story has ordinary humans (and even animals at times) at its core, dealing with their worries, hopes and problems, which may seem purely mundane but Daruwalla imbues than with a soft magnitude that touches the chord of every reader’s heart. This makes the insignificant details of daily life come alive and when told while focusing on only one issue, one hope, one worry, they achieve an importance that everyone can identify with. Thus we see in ‘the jahangir syndrome’, Kunwar Tejbhan Singh moving out of Lucknow and reflecting on the feudal system, the irony of a granddaughter not being there when her grandmother passes away in the story, ‘going’, the tender relationship between a mute and a cook who finds the former’s mimes fascinating in the ‘retired panther’, the warm, delicate, young love of Fatima and Najab across the bristling desert of the Kutch in the title story and many such more stories that delight the readers with its lucidity and clarity of places, insights, people and emotions.

From one story to another, the reader is treated to new images of India whether of the present, the recent past or its ancient past. The stories’ charm lies in the characterization of Indians( although there are exceptions) across all age groups, historical times, class and gender that underline their idiosyncrasies that proffer more information on Indian people than any erudite book could ever do.

‘Love Across The Salt Desert’ is a captivating and engaging collection of short stories that asserts Daruwalla’s status as a compelling short story writer. It is a book highly recommended that won’t be a waste of time or money but rather a journey all across India and its many moods and the world.

An Opium Journey

Deeti had never been anywhere near the sea. She lived all her live in Bihar, near to the holy river, Ganga. Yet not once did she doubt the cause of her strange vision of a ship-that it heralded a new, lucky destiny for her.

Zachary Reid had worked in a shipyard in Baltimore but had never thought that he would one day be voyaging to different parts of the world in ironically a slave ship, Ibis, that was to be refitted in Calcutta, India.

Raja Neel Rattan, zemindar of Raskhali, knew he was deep in debt but could have never dreamed it would result in his most humiliating downfall.

Paulette had not known any other religion apart from the natural world she was surrounded by.

Kalua, a Chamar, in Deeti’s village could not have foreseen how his life would forever change in one single, impetuous moment and get permanently entwined with Deeti’s.

Babu Nobokrishna Panda was a gomusta, someone who was in charge of transporting indentured migrants. No one could have guessed that he had a deep spiritual side to him as well and that he dreamed of building a temple for Ma Taramony, his spritual guide. He hoped one day she would manifest herself to him and in cherishing these two hopes he managed to secure a seat on the Ibis.

And Benjamin Burham, a self made man, owned the schooner, Ibis.

So what do the above and other many different characters from such a wide range of spectrum have in common? It is the rampant trade in opium during the British rule in India that ties the fates of so many characters together in the widely acclaimed book, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ by Amitav Ghosh.

Ibis, the schooner mentioned earlier is to be refit for that exclusive purpose-to be able to transport opium from India to China-particularly Canton. It is this very ship whose vision erupted in Deeti’s head. It is this very ship through which all the characters in the novel are fated to meet, mingle and be irrevocably connected to each other.The ship, thus, too becomes a character in the book as important in its role as the opium which it has to carry.

The novel is divided into three parts: Land, River and Sea. In the first part, Ghosh establishes most of the characters’ lives and situations prior to their voyage on the Ibis, with the exception of Zachary who is from the start tied to the Ibis.  Thus we come to know of Deeti having the vision of the Ibis(she doesn’t know then that it is that particular ship) while bathing in the River Ganga. Deeti herself has a farm in which she is forcibly made to cultivate opium by the British. She has a daughter, Kabutri and a husband who is an opium addict and cannot do much work in the farm because of an injury he sustained as a solider. Similarly all the other characters’ backgrounds are quickly summarized along with the action of the plot. The second part follows Ibis’ journey from Ganga to the Black Water. While in the third part, Ibis is on the Black Water smoothly making its voyage across the ocean. There are not many hitches except for occasional rifts between Zachary and the first mate, the discomfort of the indentured labourers and not to mention the fierce storm that lashes the ship in the end.  While on the ship, several more characters are introduced particularly the indentured labourers and the numerous sailors and captains as well as a curiously monosyllabic prisoner addict. This division of the plot clearly shows the importance of the Ibis and fits in with the idea of it being a character in itself.

Going into detail about each and every character will be exhausting and tedious and will suck out the fun of exploring each character while reading the novel. It is suffice to say that ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ delves into the massive reach of the opium trade and how it brought together people that otherwise would have shunned each other because of caste, class, gender, religion and race. This opium is an indelible part of India’s history that ruined many farmers(just like indigo), trapped individuals in its addiction and obviously showered riches on all those who traded and invested in it. It is not different from today’s widespread trickling of drugs to all parts of society that creates drug lords. However, this aspect of our history is ignored and Ghosh does a good job of bringing it back from oblivion by weaving a story around it.

Like ‘Glass Palace,’ ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ too is a pretty much straightforward story with plenty of vibrant, quirky characters from all over the world. It is a compelling story,rich in detail and history, sequential in narration, building up various different situations that culminate on the Ibis. Ghosh’s research shines through in the novel. He enlightens the reader of the lifestyle of 19th century people. However, his tendency to deviate into lengthy unnecessary descriptions plagues this novel too. Apart from that, there are no cons to the story. He does a brilliant job of creating a colonial world obsessed with opium. One critic has even praised Ghosh for his sea/ship descriptions that according to the critic are on par with Melville’s. The profusion of characters does not mar the pace of the book but adds to its vibrancy.

Altogether, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is an awe-inspiring novel that throws light on how opium affected a large number of people either positively or negatively. It is massive in size and more so in its stellar story that is bound to enthrall all readers.

Note-‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is the first in the ‘Ibis Trilogy.’ The second book, ‘River Of Smoke’ was released in 2011. Its review is coming up next.

 

The Forgotten India

Try and remember the feeling you get when you touch or see a family heirloom,smile at at old,mildewed photos of one’s ancestors,open an antique cupboard stocked with old, hardbound books or turn the fragile yellowing pages of those books. These actions unleash a sense of a bygone era,preserved so remarkably that you can feel it coursing through your very veins by the most mundane of actions like brushing your fingers through your great grandmother’s necklace or running your fingers on the spine of an old book of poetry. For many people, the past is living with them through people or through certain artifacts. For others, it is completely dead and thus doesn’t matter. It represents different things for different people:pleasure, nostalgia,joy, passion,charm,love,heartache,anger,resentment,hatred…the list is exhaustive.

For Attia Hosain,it was meant to be remembered and written about. Her only novel, ‘Sunlight On A Broken Column‘ celebrates the past-a harmonious life in an undivided India. The novel elaborately describes a past which Attia has lived in and talks about the changes that her particular lifestyle experienced. The story reveals the ways of a bygone world which she lived in and through the written word, Attia has managed to preserve it and let the future generation know about it.

The story of ‘Sunlight On A broken Column‘ is set in Lucknow of the pre-independence era. Laila is the protagonist and the reader sees everything through her eyes. Laila belongs to a taluqdar family which is steeped in tradition,customs and religion. Since they belong to the feudal system, her family is undoubtedly rich and is rooted in Indian culture and strives to preserve it. The story begins with Laila’s grandfather, Baba Jan’s death and how it brings about certain changes in their family.

There is a prominent clash among the older and younger generation. The former gives utmost priority to duty to family,respect for elders, honour etc.. Whereas the latter, influenced by the independence movement as well as liberal education always question it. This clash is at its height when close to the independence, their feudal system, the very tradition and culture they rigidly followed for generations and for centuries was threatened.

There is not much of a plot but simply a chronicle of the lifestyle of the feudal system and the general atmosphere of those times. This chronicle is refelcted through Laila’s perception. The reader sees the world then as she saw it-when she was a pre-teen, a teenager, and later on as a wife and a mother.

Hence the mood of the novel is very nostalgic. It tries to resurrect the charm of those good old, undivided days when everything was in its proper place. It can even be called an intricate study in nostalgia. Attia Hossain’s writing is also marvelous. It is utterly delicate,sensitive and very descriptive. The reader also meets myriad,interesting characters from all walks of life.

Since, ‘Sunlight On A Broken Column‘ is very much descriptive, the pace is very slow and the story seems to be going nowhere. Attia Hossain tries to condense all aspects of those times in 300 odd pages which raises the question whether the story or the rambling descriptions take the plot forward.

Despite this, it is quite fascinating to read about life when feudalism existed,when respect and honour were obeyed to death, when Hindus and Muslims lived united  and peacefully, when society depended upon a master/taluqdar and laborer/peasant relationship to survive, when women lived in one part of the house and when traditions and rituals were religiously followed.

Attia Hossain brings to life all these and several more aspects of feudalism. This is perhaps the reason why her novel is titled so. She is trying to put light on a section or column of history that is not only forgotten but also broken.

Of Holy Men and Monkeys

The problem with reading an awesome novel by a particular author is the high expectations one has with the other novels and when that doesn’t happen,you feel heartbroken for both yourself and the author. And that’s exactly what happened with ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard‘ written by Kiran Desai. Having read her other, more famous, Booker prize winning novel, ‘The Inheritance Of Loss,’ which is quite splendid weaving strands of varying themes into a beautiful story, I built up many sky high praises for Kiran Desai. But, unfortunately, her debut novel doesn’t come close to her 2nd one. ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard,’ is a good read nonetheless, yet lacks the brilliance that lights up the storyline of ‘The Inheritnace of Loss.’

Taken from christophersrarebooks.com

The plot of ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard‘ begins with the birth of Sampath in an apparently middle class family living in a village named Shahkot. Then the novel does an Indian soap opera kind of leap and we see Sampath twenty years later, quite dull, and doomed as a failure by his father. Only his mother, Kulfi, has faith that her son will be able to be something in life. And ho! what do you know, he does manage to do just that. But not before getting fired from his clerk job in the post office and running away from Shahkot to be away from the misery of life. He then comes across a guava orchard and decides to climb on a guava tree and interestingly finds peace and solace over there. He feels uncluttered and unfettered on that tree. With a quirk of fate, he gets mistaken by a holy man atop a tree and his father gets a brilliant idea to juice out money from this venture. People flock to listen to his wise words and seek his advice and blessings! Sampath thus from being a good for nothing fellow becomes a famous Monkey Baba revered by one and all. Apart from Sampath, we get to see the rest of his peculiar family like his mother who relishes food and whipping up quite grand and glorious dishes. Then his sister, Pinky who falls in love with an ice cream seller, Hungry Hop.

The one word for this novel is eccentric. ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard‘ reminds one of the bumbling comedies staged during Elizabethan Age that had similar comic situations with myriad quirky characters. The book gives a satirical take on rural/town India and its obsession with godly figures. It highlights the dishonesty that prevails among the fake babas that spring up in all nooks and corners. Of course, Sampath never intended to become a Monkey Baba. He in fact wanted to run away from all things pretentious. So perhaps Desai is trying to bring out how holy men should be in their heart and soul? Well, one can interpret it in anyway one wants. The characters are also well fleshed out particularly Kulfi whose love for food has been highlighted since page 1.

While the comic ans satirical part of the book is perfect, its the Bollywoodish touch and the simple, immature writing and the weak climax that make the book rather disappointing. Its quite entertaining and funny in its ludicrous situations but not really a must read, though a fun read!

Well, you could either go for it and enjoy the fun or avoid it completely. Take your pick!

Crime in Corrupt India

The dearth of Indian crime fiction has been partially saved by the novel ‘Six Suspects‘ written by Vikas Swarup, better known for his novel, ‘Q and A’ that was adapted into the Oscar winning film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ While ‘Q and A’ was a rather amateurish, not at all researched book with bits of faulty writing, ‘Six Suspects‘ is a tad bit better. While it has its own flaws, it is nonetheless a pretty good detective/thriller story that exposes the corrupt India and has a story that will be lavished by detective fiction lovers/fans.

Taken from fantasticfiction.co.uk

The plot revolves around Vicky Rai’s (the son of the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh) murder that took place while he was partying at his farmhouse in Delhi to celebrate his acquittal in a Jessica Lall style murder case(only in the book, the girl who was shot dead by Vicky was named Ruby Gill). There are essentially six suspects that are detained by the police as they were found carrying guns. Then, aptly, Swarup goes on and gives elaborate descriptions about all the six suspects and their motives to kill Vicky Rai. The six suspects are a motley crowd-including a sexy actress, an American,a mobile thief, Vicky’s own father, a tribal from Andaman and a former chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh. These stories are cleverly interconnected and intelligently converge at Vicky Rai’s farmhouse. In the end, an investigative journalist, Arun Advani, solves this murder mystery and the end is, I might say, quite unanticipated! The murderer is an unexpected one.

The story is well structured, with quite a few twists and turns that are definitely surprising.

Along with giving massive details about the life stories of all the six suspects, which by the way takes up a large chunk of the novel, Vikas Swarup also highlights the corruption rampant in India’s politics, displays the divide between the rich and poor and the different classes, the world of powerful contacts and influences and several more such instances that reveal the sleazy side of India.

Despite ‘Six Suspects‘ being a good detective read, it still has certain weak spots. Firstly, Vikas Swarup tries to put in a lot of information about India in the novel and most of it is sadly lifted from ‘breaking news’ sessions of the Indian tv channels that can get monotonous. This aspect makes it look like ‘Six Suspects was written for foreign audiences and Swarup was aiming for this book to be made into a film as well.  It seems there is a lack of originality. Secondly, certain ideas are rather stereotyped like the American’s view of India when he comes for the first time, the bit about Islamic fundamentalists is also very cliched(all Muslims are terrorists and all that crap). Although the story has an unpredictable end, there are times when the stories of the six suspects get predictable-for example, the tribal from Andaman has to be foolish and get duped by several people in India. Why can’t the tribals be intelligent for once?And there are several such examples.

There are certain creative bits as well like the English Literature professor ,which the former Chief Secretary met in jail, who expresses himself by uttering book titles only.

So the final verdict would be that ‘Six Suspects‘ is definitely worth a read, a good crime novel that unfortunately shows only a newspaper version of India and does not delve deeper into India’s chaotic soul. From the writing it becomes apparent that the India of ‘Six Suspects’ though very real still has a touch of being seen from a distant lens. The lack of research shows through. So if one knows nothing about India, one can probably grab this book to know about its underbelly and get some background on all the wrong things that happened in the country in the past decade or so.

Folktales galore!

This one book is a definite must for all parents who want their kids to read Indian stories rather than just Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys or God forbid, Twilight series!!!!!

Its called, ‘One Hundred and One Folktales From India‘ written by Eunice De Souza. The book, as is self explanatory, is a collection of folktales from all across India-from Kashmir, to Nagaland, to Assam, to Konkan, to Kerala etc. Some tales are new, never before chronicled, or rarely narrated in such collections. While some are very popular, well known stories.The book is divided into 6 parts, each having a separate theme. There are stories about magical beings, about kings and queens, heroes, Gods, clever men and women, saints and sadhus, of famous personlaities like Akbar Birbal, Tansen, Tenali Raman, of beasts and birds and several more!

The language is simple, clear cut, easy for the youngest children to grasp and coupled with superb black and white illustrations done by Sujata Singh, these tales are sure to entice kids. The stories can also be enjoyed by adults who have little time to read and want short, simple, witty stories. Its a great book to read if one is travelling short distances. One can easily read five to six stories in about 15 minutes since most stories are one or two pages only. Its a good way to revisit one’s childhood when such stories were popular to read or get in touch with Indian folktales.

Despite its collection and marvellous illustrations, many parents would prefer buying some other folktales books like the Amar Chitra Katha or Aesop fables books. The former is in general very popular and its colourful illustrations along with the comic book style format will surely catch the eye of any young kid more than Eunice De Souza’s ‘One Hundred and One Folktales From India.’ That’s one and the only disadvantage of the book. There are just so many better, more vibrant, colourful books about India’s rich folktales and mythology that both parents and kids might prefer that. They may view De Souza’s book as just another big, fat, long, textbook type book that completely discourages them from buying it. Of course, a parent can definitely influence a kid’s choice!

Apart from that, ‘One Hundred and One Folktales From India‘ is a brilliant collection of stories, fables and folktales that allows any reader, with its simple language, to get a glimpse of India’s rich stories!

Getting the blues!

We all have read stories of abusive families, violent relationships and we are bombarded with it even by the television media. We are exposed to it to such an extent that it gets morbid. Now suppose there was a book that looked at these aspects from a different view, a subtle view;wouldn’t that make the novel with a used storyline, well, quite, ‘novel’? But well, you’ll ask, is there such a book??  But of course there is…there are always all kinds of books to be read!

Taken from paperbackswap.com

And this one is called, ‘The Blue Bedspread‘, a debut novel of Raj Kamal Jha which chronicles a tale of a abusive family history and incestuous relationships. And it is quite a quick, interesting read that still manages to evoke a spectrum of touching, depressing, momentous, happy emotions!

The story starts with an unnamed narrator who hears of his sister’s death during childbirth. His sister gave birth to a baby girl who he takes home for the night. Fearing that some other people might want to adopt the girl, he begins writing his family’s story so that the baby knows of its background, knows more about her mother and the family she came from. As he begins to write, the stories initially revolve around innocuous, childlike tales but gradually they begin to reveal the rot that festered in his family. The narrator opens a can of worms and the reader finds out about certain dark secrets of the abusive father, of the bold, defiant sister, of his mother, of the narrator himself. He talks of a blue bedspread that symbolizes the intimate relationship between his sister and him. That blue bedspread comes to symbolize a different world, away from the trauma of a dysfunctional family. In the end, the reader sees the shocking, exact nature of that relationship.

Raj Kamal Jha in ‘The Blue Bedspread‘ has skillfully written vignettes about the narrator’s family. It comes across as a jigsaw puzzle that the reader has to solve to view the complete picture.  Each vignette has its own mood, emotion, feel and yet each is interconnected with a thin strand of the narrator’s memory and facts. The novel could have worked well as a collection of short stories as well because of this aspect. The writing style is sparse, straightforward, precise and to the point. It does not mimic other more famed Indian writers like perhaps Salman Rushdie or Siddharth Dhanwant Shanghvi who use either countless descriptions or a flowery prose.  Yet, the book seems, at least to me, very similar in terms of structure to Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things.’ It might be written by an Indian author but the subject of the book is universal and though it is set in Kolkata, the narrator’s abusive family could be from any part of the world-be it Delhi, Mumbai, Shanghai, Nairobi, Milan, or any other corner. ‘The Blue Bedspread‘ has a non linear narration, no fixed time line as it moves from one time span to another.

Unfortunately, this jumbled up narration can get confusing, jarring and even nonsensical. Certain vignettes also seem very inappropriate as they do not help the story to move forward nor are they very cohesive. The lack of a cohesive narration and structure of vignettes mars the effect of the story.

Its a great book to read, with Jha giving soft touches to a melancholic scenario, giving it a fresh look, yet gently showcasing the immense, long lasting impact of such family violence. But be wary of its narration and structure.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ is a fabulous book written by Salman Rushdie that can be interpreted at varying levels by the reader. It can be viewed simply as a creative fairy tale written by a father(Salman Rushdie) for his son(Zafar) or can be seen as a commentary supporting free speech or as a postmodern fairy tale  or a criticism of the postmodern novels or whichever way one wants to see it. The book will nonetheless not fail to enthrall the reader as Rushdie takes you into the realms of an exuberant, richly created magic world.

Taken from penguinbooksindia.com

The story has two protagonists-Rashid and Haroun. Rashid has a gift of telling stories upon stories to anyone who would request him one. This talent earned him the sobriquet, Shah of Blah. However, one day, his wife,Soraya, leaves him for a better life with a Mr Sengupta who was their neighbour. As a result of this tragedy, Rashid loses his ability to tell stories. He just simply runs out of them and cannot summon the magic with which he used to narrate his never ending stories! His only son, Haroun, therefore sets out to restore his father’s talent. However, Haroun soon realises that this task is far from easy. His father’s stories come from a subscription to the water supply to the Gup City in Kahani. This subscription has been canceled and now Haroun must go to Kahani, to the Gup city to renew it which will renew his father’s story telling gift as well. While over there, Haroun finds himself embroiled in another adventure. The princess of Gup city is kidnapped by Chup city who forbid people from speaking and where it is always dark. He and Rashid discover these two cities while saving the princess and helping Rashid to once again become the Shah of Blah.

‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ is an upbeat, imaginative, buoyant fairy tale that works as an allegory along with drawing parallels between Rushdie’s and Rashid’s life. Rushdie has used references from several past books as well like ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Wizard of Oz,’ ‘One Thousand and One Arabian Nights’ etc. Rushdie’s brilliant writing, lucid style and imagination and copious humor will appeal to all readers-from young to old, to literature students and scholars. There are so many layers to the story and can be seen from so many numerous perspectives that one can can get lost in the depths of the story. Each character has a parallel in real life and the some of the places mentioned in the book are obviously inspired from real life places.

It is a wonderful book to peruse, a delight for all bookworms the world over.

Go grab it and fly along with Haroun to the Gup and Chup city!

Glimpsing Mumbai

Short stories are usually good,easy read proffering an anecdote,a glimpse into someone’s life, drawing you in that story and leaving you satisfied of having dabbled in their life. ‘Window Seat‘ by Janhavi Acharekar is a collection of short stories that have the same effect on the reader. There are 30 short stories-each revealing a different side of human nature, emotions, of India, of Mumbai and each is well crafted, well written and always ending with a concrete resolution-absent in many other short stories that often mar the story’s charm. But not Acharekar-she is one brilliant writer, way better than the popular Chetan Bhagat or any other IIT/IIM students turned writers we see today in India.

Taken from amazon.com

Each of her short story explores a new idea, divulges the good, the bad and the ugly of Mumbai city. And none are cliched. They are simple, realistic, displaying the daily lives of many common folks of the city-their struggles, their fights, their dreams, their feelings, their worries, their happiness-almost everything under the sun. It is this portrayal of the daily, everyday, mundane aspect of people’s lives polished with Acharekar’s fine, creative imagination, that makes each story is distinctive and unique. The readers will connect to atleast one short story because Janhavi Acharekar covers everything-from the slum life, to the middle class worries to the high class celebrity to the party life-everything that together comprises the reader’s perception of Mumbai.

The stories have varied themes, ranging from a couple searching for the perfect flat/home in Mumbai, a freedom fighter’s popularity in his Girgaum neighbourhood, a unique event at Mumbai Central Station, the cause of a riot, a teacher’s wistful memories of her old school days, a cyberspace love relationship, an art preview, four women’s lives in Mumbai’s lifeline-the local train and so many more.  Giving a full detailed description of each story would kill the joy of reading it on one’s own.

Now you might ask, why would one want to read about the daily life of Mumbaikars? Simply because, one can connect with them and also because, the writer plainly, economically, straightforwardly puts her story across, accessing our hearts and moving us too!

The book, ‘Window Seat‘  is divided into 2 parts. While the first part has unconnected stories, the second part is further subdivided into 3 parts and the stories in each of the 3 parts are connected to each other in terms of their setting and characters and not necessarily continuity.

There are a few disheartening aspects of the book as well. Firstly, some stories go back in time, see Mumbai nostalgically and not con temporarily which is good in a few stories but not always. Also, some stories are not even set in the 21st century. They have an old world charm to it which again is not necessarily a bad thing but a more contemporary setting would do better with many newcomers to the city and other too. Besides there are far too many Mumbai novels that nostalgically always stay in a bygone Mumbai that will definitely never come back again. So why bother writing pages and pages if so much has already been written about it? Secondly, some stories tilt only towards South Mumbai not bothering to explore North and Navi Mumbai. Thirdly,the title, ‘Window Seat‘ is also misleading suggesting that the book has stories set in the Mumbai locals, when in fact there are myriad settings to each story.

Besides those few points, ‘Window Seat‘ is a marvellous novel the keeps you wanting for more. Acharekar’s lucid writing, her non-romanticized notions of Mumbai and her brilliant story telling ability make the book worth reading it. Wish she writes more such books and hopes she becomes more popular and widely read because a good writer like her definitely deserves it!

Here’s a toast to good contemporary Indian English writing!

The Glass Palace

Taken from 43things.com

‘The Glass Palace’ written by Amitav Ghosh is a massive account of the lives of several unique, interesting people over the span of a century from about the late 1800s’ to the 1990s’.

The book’s size maybe daunting for many novella addicted readers but it is surely worth perusing. The book’s size should not be a deterrent for reading it because believe me it is one heck of an interesting read!

The story starts with an Indian, Rajkumar, who works in a food shop in Burma and parallel to this story runs the story of the King and Queen-Thebaw and Supalayat- of Burma and the latter’s maids, specifically Dolly. Rajkumar later on goes into the timber business along with Saya John, a close friend of sorts. Rajkumar tracks down Dolly, who had gone to British India with the exiled royal family of Burma. Rajkumar predictably finds her and they predictably get married. The story then superbly weaves itself around their lives as well as their children and other significant people of their lives like Uma Dey, who Dolly had met during her stay in India, Saya John’s son, Matthew; Uma’s sister’s kids-Arjun and Manju and Bela and many more myriad characters. Ghosh closely follows each person’s story but at no point does it get drab or boring. Ghosh takes us into the hearts and souls of each character, giving us intricate details of several emotions, several nuances and much more. The novel also deftly manifests how world events or incidents beyond one’s control affect individuals in a way that they can’t even imagine.

Ghosh uses simple short sentences and keeps it brief yet conveys the intensity of the  situation or the emotions quite marvelously. However at times he tends to run away with unnecessary descriptions that veers off from the actual story.

The best part of the book is that it is soaking, literally dripping with history/past. It brings alive an era gone by, how lives were interconnected even then, how even then the world was globalized! It is extraordinary to see the Burmese and Indian interrelations that operated at that time and how porous those borders were until the British took over.

‘The Glass Palace’ is a multicultural and family saga that stands out because of its beautiful depiction of human lives-their vulnerability, invulnerability, their courage, their emotions, their thoughts, their culture-with so much depth and sensitivity that is hardly seen in many books today. It draws the reader into the story, makes them feel like they are part of that era, that family, that life and culture.

Railway Stories

Indian Railways are an important part of our country’s landscape, a necessity that moves life, that helps travelling. Yet, we hardly have many stories on them or about them or them figuring prominently in a novel/story. Most kids know about the famous, ‘Railway Children,’ by Edith Nesbit but Indian railway stories are hard to come by.

Taken from penguinbooksindia.com

I recently came across, a wonderful collection of short stories about Indian railways titled, ‘The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories,’ edited by Ruskin Bond. I was delighted to read it as trains are an everyday part of my life.

The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories,’ is divided into two sections:

I) Stories Before Independence

II) Stories after Independence.

The book is fabulous from start to the end. Even the short poem,’ A Traveller’s Tale’ by A.G. Shirreff (1917) right at the beginning as well as the beautiful introduction written by Ruskin Bond helps to draw the reader into the right mood so she/he can plunge into the depths of each carefully chosen short story.

Through the 18 stories, we can sense the transition of the Indian railways from during the British period to after India’s independence. Some of the stories are extracts like R. K . Laxman’s ‘Railway Reverie’ or Khushwant Singh’s ‘Mano Majra Station.’ Some are stand alone stories. Nonetheless, all of them are equally mesmerising and enjoyable and some even have a slight mysterious element. Some brilliantly capture the railway’s ubiquitous presence and charm and its importance.

I will refrain from elaborating on all the 18 stories mostly because it will be too tedious and a pain to all reading the review. But I do want to mention that my favourites are ‘Cherry Choo-Choo’ by Victor Banerjee and ‘Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment’ by Satyajit Ray. The former is a nostalgic story of a defunct train called locally as ‘Cherry Choo Choo’ which was an admired and much loved train during its lifetime. The latter story is a brilliant story of a unique coincidence occurring in a train carriage. There are a few stories that are very technical and only those who are knowledgeable about railway jargon may understand  it better. There are few stories, because they are written in the pre-independence era, have certain racial aspects which are disconcerting yet if one overlooks that, then the story turns to a good one.

All in all, this collection is a must read. Even though it does not talk of local trains of Mumbai, it reminds us of how railways helped this mighty nation to develop and how trains have a special place in our hearts and the collection of the short stories helps to ignite that love in our heart’s special for trains. The book is a great read and for best results, it is best to read it while travelling in a train. It just helps to add to the atmosphere, to the setting and the mood of each story.

Happy journey and happy reading!

Journeying Through ‘Noble’ Bombay

Such A Long Journey‘, the debut novel of Rohinton Mistry was in the news due to it being banned by the esteemed vice chancellor of Mumbai University. Leaving aside all the political crap raked up by the Shiv Sena, the book is an exceptional work of literature and no one should be denied the right to read such a fantastic book.

Taken from faber.co.uk

Such A Long Journey‘ in general is a story of a Parsi man, Gustad Noble, livng in the then Bombay in a Parsi Khodadad Building. It is set during 1971 when East Pakistan was at war with West Pakistan and millions of refugees poured into India, particularly Bengal, due to unspeakable crimes committed on them by brute forces of West Pakistan.

Gustad is a bank clerk whose eldest son, Sohrab, gets into IIT but wants to continue his BA much to the dismay of Gustad, his other son, Darius is a sort of a body builder while his daughter, Roshan, falls ill constantly with bouts of fever and diarrhea. Gustad had known better times, more prosperous times. If his family troubles weren’t enough, his old friend Jimmy Bilimoria sends a letter asking him to help out in a preposterous, somewhat heroic, somewhat illegal manner.

In between all these happenings of Gustad’s life, Mistry exposes the reader to an assorted motley of characters whose lives are entwined with Gustad’s. For eg, his homely , superstitious wife-Dilnavaz,the fumbling, handicapped-Tehmul, the bipolar Ghulam Mohammad, the philosophical pavement artist, his college friend-Malcolm etc. The best thing about Mistry’s novel is the apart from the realistic and episodic descriptions of the main character’s lives, he also imbues even the most trivial and seemingly unimportant character with stark and singular qualities that immediately make them memorable. He is skilled in the way of characterization.

Mistry provides the reader with a glimpse of the way of life at that time, gives fleeting images and vast descriptions of certain peculiar aspects of Bombay like the House Of Cages, Mount Mary Church and most importantly, a middle class Parsi way of life in Bombay.

Such A Long Journey‘ has no clear cut divisions, like many other novels, of prologue, climax, epilogue or conclusion. The story goes on with a smooth flow, carrying the reader through Gustad’s and others’ lives. There is no obvious climax, no resolute conclusion. In fact, the end of the book suffuses one with a sweet lingering feeling of nostalgic happiness and sadness. There are no shades of excitement in the book except for parts when Gustad is engaged in helping out Jimmy. There are flecks of suspense in those parts. Other then that, ‘Such A Long Journey’ has no proper plot, no climax, no thrills and frills. This is not a disadvantage but for those who prefer the above aspects may find the book largely monotonous. ‘Such A Long Journey’ depicts Gustad’s life. It portrays it realistically and it is as if the reader is being taken through his life. And in real life, there are hardly any clear distinctions of plot and climax and such stuff. Thus the story tries to mimic this aspect and Mistry has thus created a unique novel.

The rest can easily pick up the book, sit cozily on an armchair, cuddle up and let Mistry draw you into the ups and downs, highs and lows of Gustad’s life. Let yourself journey through ‘Noble’ Bombay.

‘Untouchable’ left me touched

‘Untouchable’ is a marvel of Indian fiction. Written by Mulk Raj Anand, it is not the regular kind of a book but rather a classic with deals with one of the worst evils of Hindu caste system-untouchability. Its written so sensitively that the book captures the reader immediately into its raw depictions and narration.

Taken from longitudebooks.com

The timeline of the story is only one single day. In that one single day, the novel follows the life of Bakha, a sweeper by birth and therefore an outcaste, an untouchable, who lives in an outcastes’ colony on the outskirts of the Bulandshahr. The discrimination he faces since the morning, the manner in which he deals with them and his reflections on many ordinary things are touchingly brought out by Mulk Raj Anand. In the morning, Bakha is abused by a priest who accuses Bakha of having touched him, later on Bakha is cast out of the temple, then he faces the wrath of a housewife because he sat on her porch. Later, a mother of an injured upper caste boy scolds Bakha for touching him and in the end, his own father’s reaction disgusts him. All these numerous forms of discrimination happen in only one day and are so intensely described that one thinks that 2 or 3 days have passed. I think that by using this technique, Anand wants to show the readers that just in one day Bakha has to bear so much injustice; so it is unthinkable how much endless discrimination he faces his whole life!

‘Untouchable’ doesn’t just simply question this problem of untouchability but also provides three solutions(which are mentioned in the preface) of which the last one is the most practical. This aspect is what makes the book stand out because it doesn’t merely represent a problem but aims to resolve it also.

The book definitely proffers an excellent look of an Indian society of pre-Independence era, how life functioned then. Its something we can’t imagine because our lives and our society is so vastly different from that. Its slightly slow paced as it gradually follows the events, thoughts meandering in Bakha through one single day.

Nevertheless, ‘Untouchable’ is hailed as a masterpiece and so it is. Its a great book and a must read for any one interested in Indian English Fiction or Literature.

Unaccustomed Earth

For me, Indian Fiction is irresistible and Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing draws me, attracts me to read her novels. I had read ‘Namesake’ which was an excellent book with a rare story of Indian immigrants in America. ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is pretty much written on the same lines with the only exception that it is not a novel but a collection of short stories. Its worth spending your time and money over and its a really wonderful read.

Taken from amazon.com

The book is divided into 2 parts with Part One having 5 short stories about Indian immigrants of different age, gender, generation and they are all set all over the U.S. While Part Two is a short immigrant love story of Hema and Kaushik.

In Part One, the first story ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is about a husband and his daughter coping with the wife/mother’s death and how her death allows him to travel while the daughter worries about taking care of her father. In the second story, ‘Hell-Heaven’, a married woman falls in love with a younger man who does not reciprocate this love and instead marries an American. ‘A Choice Of  Accommodation’, the third story narrates the loss of love between a married Indian-American couple and how they regain that love. The fourth one, ‘Only Goodness’ is a story of a sister trying to protect her brother from alcoholism yet shunning him away at the same time because of his addiction. It gives a curious look at brother-sister relationship. The last story,’Nobody’s Business’  is a singular story of an Indian woman living as a roommate  with Americans who is in love with an Egyptian. Part Two has three chapters which narrate a singular love story that develops between Hema and Kaushik over the years yet ends in tragedy.

The first thing that hits the reader in the face is that these stories do not have a rosy picture. There is a fragmented despair and utter sadness and even isolation and depression that pervades each story. They do not have a single aspect of the American Dream. There is conflict in each story, a loss of identity, a strong sense of disillusionment or even anger. ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ provides harsh glimpses into the immigrant’s world which is unexpected as the majority of readers would expect a happy, better life in America than in India. Materially, the families are well off in each story but never emotionally or spiritually.

Although ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is a collection of short stories, the characters really come alive in each of them. Jhumpa Lahiri’s fine writing brings out nuances, peculiar qualities, different characteristics that makes the reader easily form a good picture of the characters in their mind(just like in ‘Family Matters’ by Rohinton Mistry). Her writing is undoubtedly superb and elegant. It effortlessly captures the essence of Indian immigrant life in America (just like it did in the ‘Namesake’) Its a definite must read for all lovers of Indian fiction writing and for all those who love literature.

One warning for all who want to pick up the book to read: ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ requires a great deal of concentration and it is not our typical kind of ‘happy’ book, so for those who want to peruse only for fun and past time, please don’t bother to read ‘Unaccustomed Earth’. For others who would love to venture beyond the usual, stereotypical books, might find this book just right!